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My House/My Life

Fighting City Hall Over Tree Damage

July 22, 2001|BRIAN J. COMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are wonderful things about being a homeowner. Getting warm clothes from the dryer on cold winter mornings. Picking fresh rosemary in the backyard garden on a hot summer night. And don't forget the amazing deduction on your tax return.

But there's something they don't tell you when you close escrow and start to think that you're special just because you own a home: The same municipality that collects your property taxes every year can turn into the Evil Empire if you make a property damage claim.

Not so long ago, and not so far away, furious nighttime Santa Ana winds had knocked down tree branches along my street. Imagine my horror to discover a huge tree limb had crashed into the trunk of my carefully pampered BMW parked in the driveway.

I hoped it was a simple case of neighborhood vandalism as I made a frantic call to my gardener, who had serviced the yard that morning.

But he confirmed my worst fears: It was the overgrown sweet gum tree, also known as liquidambar, on the little wedge of grass adjacent to the street that was responsible for the damage, a tree that was owned by the city of Los Angeles.

When I collected estimates for repairs at different body shops, I got more bad news. "You're looking at $1,500 out-of-pocket. Good luck trying to collect," they all said. But they didn't know about my friendly, compassionate insurance company.

O blessed are ye who wield great powers from my premiums, please help me as you have before, I prayed. Certainly they would save the day under an obscure provision called subrogation. Yet when I called the insurance company about the prospect of filing a subrogated claim for damages on my behalf, the answer was "No dice.

Your deductible is way too high, I was told, and too many other cases were already piled up against the city, some for serious injury and others for big money.

"Gee, it would have been better if you had smashed up the car," I was told.

My only choices were to pay for the repairs myself or to file a damage claim against the city. It's not the money, I said to myself as I called City Hall to ask for a claim form. It's the principle of the thing.

If I owned something that caused damage to someone else or his property, I would certainly be held responsible. The same principles should apply to the city, right?

As I was to learn, the answer is no. I filled out the claim form and sent in everything I could gather concerning evidence to verify my claim. I had photos. I had signed letters. I had copies of estimates. I sent a beautifully organized file to the city attorney's office. Meanwhile, I had been making urgent calls to the Bureau of Street Services for months about the problem of falling tree branches. I even called my county supervisor's office and e-mailed the mayor.

Everyone was sympathetic, and they promised to do something. Yet week after week passed without a hint of action.

In the meantime, I learned that the city's street services bureau is unprepared to handle the problem and has only two field crews to service my half of the city.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but days after I filed the claim, a crew showed up to trim my tree. I was so grateful I didn't even care that the crew knocked a few shingles off my roof when the cut branches crashed to the ground. I thought things were looking good.

I even received a letter saying that my claim would be processed within a speedy six months. However, six months later I opened my mail to find the city had sent back a frosty form letter to deny my claim.

Didn't they care? Didn't my pictures tell the whole story? I was outraged that no one bothered to investigate my claim.

The reason cited for the denial was a standard law stating that because the city had no knowledge that the trees were a problem, it didn't have any responsibility for what had happened.

Because my damages were less than $5,000, my last legal hope was in the known as Small Claims Court. Anyone who's ever been through this gut-wringer knows the problem.

It's easy enough to fill out the paperwork and serve notice to the defendant with minimal costs, but how do you prove what you know to be true against another person's word?

To win in Small Claims Court, you need hard evidence and you must follow the applicable rules of law. It's not the same as going on "Judge Judy" and throwing a tantrum.

I had to educate myself on the California Civil Code section relevant to my case, and somehow I had to obtain evidence that the city knew there was a problem with the trees on my street and was negligent in failing to fix the problem.

To make a long story short, it pays to ask the right questions of the right people. Who does the asking also matters. Before my day in court, I had my evidence in the form of the street service bureau's records of tree complaints for my block, and I used it to cite the rules of law that proved the city must be held responsible for the damages to my car.

The city's records of tree service requests showed that my neighbors had complained for months about the problem before my car was damaged. A neighbor who had made one of the service requests was willing to testify about this injustice. Once I presented all of this evidence in court, the city attorney's office agreed to settle.

A month later, I received a check in the mail just in time to fix my car before the lease was up, a year and a half after it all began.

The lessons here for homeowners are simple: Don't live under the illusion that you'll get any special treatment because you own a little piece of the rock. Keep detailed, accurate records of everything related to your claim. Don't take no for an answer and be persistent and patient. And be willing to learn how to stand up for your rights.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to write a letter of apology to George Lucas.

Brian Comer is a Van Nuys homeowner.

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